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Is a mini nuclear power plant a possibility? The answer is yes.
Take the case of a nuclear submarine. It produces power in the range of 20 MW. Nukes can operate under water for days together without surfacing, leave alone refueling. If this scale of nuclear plant is possible in a submarine, why not on the land? Mini nuclear plants in the range of 10 to 40 MW are expected to be a key energy source in the coming decade.
What is required is the technology, political will, and tolerance of the public. The advantages are many.
The mini nuclear power plant consists of a mini nuclear reactor along with the steam generators buried underground. This produces steam for the steam turbine generators placed above ground. Electricity is produced in much the same way as in any other thermal power plant with the steam being condensed and recycled. This is akin to a geothermal power plant without the deep wells and the labyrinth of piping that take the steam from the bowels of the earth. Or consider this as a big battery buried in the ground giving full power continuously for seven to twenty years. Or like the hermetically sealed compressor in your refrigerator working continuously for years without any maintenance.
Maybe we could even have household nuclear power generators in the future.
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Mini vs Large Nuclear Plants
Compared to large nuclear power plants, mini nuclear plants have distinct advantages. The most important detractions of any nuclear plant are its safety concerns, radiation hazards, and a core meltdown or a nuclear hijack.
- Mini nuclear plants score on this point: the energy levels are low, which means that in the worst case of a meltdown the energy release and the radiation can be contained in the concrete vessel. No fears of a Chernobyl or Three Mile Island-like situation.
- The nuclear fuel used is of a lower grade than weapons requirement. So security issues like theft or hijacking can be ruled out.
- The reactors themselves are sealed and buried underground. This makes it safe, environmentally friendly, and even less prone to radiation leaks.
- The reactors are assembled in the factory and installed in the location. After the fuel is spent the reactor is taken back to the factory for recharging or disposal. This eliminates a costly recharging facility and maintenance facility and skilled personnel in each power plant.
- The weight of each module is considerably less than an equivalent the thermal power plants. Since the reactors themselves are factory assembled, gestation time for a mini nuclear plant construction is considerably less.
- Since the spend reactor goes back to the factory for recharging, the utility companies or the power producers need not worry about the nuclear waste disposal.
- Since the reactors are factory produced, the construction time is considerably less.
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Mini nuclear plants have many advantages when compared with small scale fossil fuel power plants or even with renewable energy power plants.
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Mini Nuclar vs Fossil power Plants
Compared to coal fired thermal power-
- There is no Carbon emission. There is no emission or pollutants or residues of any kind. This can meet all environmental regulations.
- There is no worry of fuel transportation, fuel cost escalation, or fuel availability.
- The plant area required is considerably less. There is no need for a fuel storage area.
- The maintenance requirements are considerable less since the reactor portion is factory sealed. This gives a much better availability than fossil fuels, at the same capacity factors.
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Mini Nuclear vs Renewables
Renewable energy has geographical and natural limitations. Because of this, the capacity factors are very low.
Solar power has a capacity factor of only 12% to 20 % and can work only in the daytime. Even though the input energy is freely available, the high investment coupled with low output makes the unit cost of electricity very high.
The case with wind energy is the same.
Mini nuclear plants can act as base load stations and can give continuous power 24 hours a day for 365 day in a year.
This plant can be located anywhere, not necessarily in selective locations like renewable energy. They are not subject to weather or natural conditions.
Because of the small size, this is ideally suited for isolated communities, islands, and environmentally sensitive areas. They can also be effectively used for heating and desalination purposes.
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Three companies are the forerunners of this technology.
Nuscale Power offers mini nuclear in modular form in the range of 45 MW. The number of reactors modules can be added up to increase power capacity. They propose to use technology that is already proven and running in the large nuclear plants. Source: NuScale Power - How NuScale Technology Works
Hyperion also plans to commercialize mini nuclear plants in the range of 25 MW on the same lines as proven technology. Source: Hyperion - A New Paradigm for Power Generation
Toshiba’s 4S (Super Safe, Small, and Simple) is another that is in advanced stages of commercialisation which can produce power in the range of 10 MW using a new technology. They plan to use liquid lithium-6, an isotope that is effective at absorbing neutrons and liquid sodium as the coolant.
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Mini nuclear plants could be the answer to replacing fossil power and reduction in global warming.